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What The Future Holds For Labor Unions

In this March 11, 2019, photo, educators attend a rally to support funding for public schools at the state Capitol in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)
In this March 11, 2019, photo, educators attend a rally to support funding for public schools at the state Capitol in Austin, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

“Beaten Down, Worked Up” — longtime labor reporter Steven Greenhouse on the future of unions.


Steven Greenhouse, author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.” Reporter at The New York Times for 31 years, who covered labor and the workplace for 19 years. (@greenhousenyt)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Beaten Down, Worked Up” by Steven Greenhouse

In the United States, a country that by many measures is the world’s richest, life has taken a wrong turn for millions of workers. For far too many, the land of opportunity has turned into a land of downsized hopes and shrunken mobility. Many Americans who struggle to pay each month’s bills, who juggle two or three jobs, who bounce from one low-paid gig job to another, ask what has happened to this land of vaunted opportunity, a nation famed for its Horatio Alger credo: if you work hard, you will get ahead.

As the stories above make clear, something is fundamentally broken in the way many American employers treat their workers. Too often employers fail to show workers basic respect, too often they fail to heed workers’ most fundamental concerns, too often workers are badly underpaid or cheated out of wages. Too often employers show utter contempt for the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

For decades, the United States was the world’s economic beacon, the country with the largest and richest middle class, a land of rising wages and broad prosperity. But now millions of Americans are wondering what happened to that golden age of prosperity, to John F. Kennedy’s exhortation that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” American workers’ pent- up frustration about stagnant wages and shuttered factories was a big factor in the 2016 election. That frustration helped push millions of blue-collar workers to vote for Donald Trump, a billionaire who wooed and wowed them by promising “to bring back the jobs,” rev up manufacturing, and get tough on Mexico and China. Blue-collar whites gave Trump the margins he needed to win Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and, with those states, overall victory.

Though candidate Trump campaigned as a champion of workers, his administration has repeatedly sided with business over workers. It has scrapped numerous job safety regulations, pushed to take away health coverage from millions of families, and rolled back a rule that extended overtime pay to millions more workers. In a boon to Wall Street, the Trump administration has maneuvered to kill a rule requiring Wall Street firms to act in the worker’s, not the investment firm’s, best interests when managing retirement funds—a move that could potentially cost many workers tens of thousands of dollars. (Trump’s tough trade actions have helped some steel, aluminum, and auto workers, but he has taken those actions in a blundering, blunderbuss way that has hurt many other workers and alienated and angered Canada and many other longtime allies.)

Trump’s appointees have also moved aggressively to undermine the institution that is traditionally the biggest champion of workers: organized labor. Not only have his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued numerous rulings to weaken unions and make it harder for workers to organize, but his administration has pushed hard to undercut federal employees’ unions (even ordering a wage freeze for federal workers). Taking the extraordinary step of reversing the previous administration’s position before the Supreme Court, Trump’s Justice Department urged the high court to issue two rulings that seriously hurt labor. One delivered a severe blow to the nation’s public-employee unions, and the other, in a significant slap at workers’ rights, permitted companies to bar workers from bringing class actions against wage theft, racial or sex discrimination, or other wrongdoing by employers. Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, cast the deciding vote in both 5–4 cases. It’s plainly demagogic for President Trump to promote himself as a good friend of the American worker when his administration and appointees are pushing, in myriad ways large and small, to hobble labor unions and workers’ ability to speak up.


There’s a hugely important but often overlooked phenomenon that goes far to explain why so many bad things are happening to American workers, and that is the decades-long decline in worker power, both in the workplace and in politics and policy. Many industrial relations experts put it another way: they say there has been an undeniable decline in worker voice, the effective ability of workers to speak up and the willingness of many employers to listen to what workers have to say.

In their groundbreaking 1984 book on labor relations, What Do Unions Do?, Richard B. Freeman and James L. Medoff stressed the importance of voice, writing, “Voice means discussing with an employer conditions that ought to be changed, rather than quitting the job.” As a result of the decline in worker voice in recent decades, there is far less of a brake to stop businesses from doing what they will vis-à-vis their workers, whether it’s freezing pay or insisting that employees work sixteen-hour days.

As workers’ power has waned, many corporations have adopted practices that were far rarer or largely unheard of three and four decades ago: hiring hordes of unpaid interns, expecting many workers to toil sixty or seventy hours a week, illegally treating many workers as independent contractors rather than as employees (and thus avoiding any obligation to contribute to their Social Security benefits or pay them overtime). In recent years, far more companies have reduced employees’ mobility by making them sign non-compete clauses, with some employers requiring even fast-food workers and summer camp counselors to pledge not to work for competitors. And far more than in prior decades, many retailers and restaurants—in a practice known as “clopening”—are ordering employees to work until 11 p.m. or midnight to close up and then return at 7 or 8 a.m. to open up, meaning those workers are lucky to get five hours of sleep. And economists have recently documented how the excessive power of a few consolidated employers is holding down wages, a phenomenon known as monopsony. For instance, if one or two hospital chains dominate a metropolitan area, that might limit the ability of nurses or nurses’ aides to move to other jobs in search of higher wages.

This lack of worker leverage helps explain what might be called America’s anti-worker exceptionalism. The United States is the only industrial nation in which workers don’t have a legal right to paid sick days (although several states and cities have enacted paid sick leave laws). Similarly, the United States is the only industrial nation not to give workers a legal right to any vacation, paid or unpaid. In France, by contrast, workers have a legal right to six weeks’ paid vacation a year; in Britain, twenty-eight days; in Germany, four weeks. The United States is also the only industrial nation that doesn’t have a law guaranteeing paid maternity leave; the average in European nations is more than twenty weeks. The only other countries in the world without paid maternity leave laws are Papua New Guinea, Suriname, and a few Pacific island states.

The decline in workers’ bargaining power is of course closely related to the diminished might of America’s labor unions. Labor unions represent just 6.4 percent of America’s private-sector workers and 10.5 percent of workers overall. That’s the lowest percentage in more than a century, and down from 35 percent in the 1950s. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) union has dwindled to 430,000 members from its peak of 1.5 million in 1979. The once-mighty International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) shrank so much that it merged with several other unions, and its name and fame have faded into history.

“No one who looks at the American economy of the last generation can fail to be struck by the precipitous decline of organized labor,” Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote in Winner-Take-All Politics. “While there are many ‘progressive’ groups in the American universe of organized interests, labor is the only major one focused on the broad economic concerns of those with modest incomes.”

By uniting workers’ collective power, unions have made many important advances for American workers—advances that many now take for granted. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, through landmark contracts with General Motors, Ford, and other industrial giants, unions played a decisive role in building the biggest, richest middle class the world had ever seen. Unions also played a pivotal role in winning enactment of the federal minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, occupational safety laws, and the civil rights laws of the 1960s. (There is much truth to the bumper sticker: “Unions: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”)

Union members earn 13.6 percent more than comparable nonunion workers, after adjusting for education, age, and other factors. Seventy-five percent of unionized workers participate in employer-sponsored health plans, compared with just 49 percent of nonunion workers. Eighty-three percent of union members have an employer-sponsored retirement plan, while just 49 percent of nonunion workers do. Unions also help reduce the gender pay gap. Women workers in unions are paid, on average, ninety-four cents to the dollar paid to unionized male workers, while nonunion women earn seventy-eight cents to the dollar compared with nonunion working men. African American union members earn on average 16.4 percent more than comparable nonunion black workers.

Unions have played an important, but often unappreciated role in reducing inequality; the decades when unions were strongest—the 1940s through 1970s—were the decades when there was the least income inequality. One study found that the decline in union power and density since 1973 explains a third of the increase in wage inequality among American men and a fifth of the increased inequality among women. Two economists at the International Monetary Fund found that the “the decline in unionization” (and the concomitant decline in worker bargaining power) “explains about half of the rise in incomes for the richest 10 percent” in advanced industrial nations and about half the increase in those nations’ main measure of income inequality. Unions often reduce inequality by pushing for higher pay for typical workers, more generous Social Security benefits, higher taxes on the rich, and greater restraints on executive pay.


In their prime, unions regularly turned to their most powerful weapon—the strike—to fight for better pay and conditions. Nowadays, however, unions are so weakened that they rarely go on strike. From 2010 to 2017, there were fewer than 13 major strikes per year on average in the private sector (involving more than a thousand workers). That’s less than one-sixth the average annual amount in the 1980s (83), and less than one-twentieth the yearly average in the 1970s (288).

Excerpted from BEATEN DOWN, WORKED UP by Steven Greenhouse. Copyright © 2019 by Steven Greenhouse. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

New York Times: “Opinion: Yes, America Is Rigged Against Workers” — “The United States is the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave. It is also the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only highly developed country (other than South Korea) that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, the European Union’s 28 nations guarantee workers at least four weeks’ paid vacation.

“Among the three dozen industrial countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has the lowest minimum wage as a percentage of the median wage — just 34 percent of the typical wage, compared with 62 percent in France and 54 percent in Britain. It also has the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers among that group, exceeded only by Latvia.

“All this means the United States suffers from what I call ‘anti-worker exceptionalism.’

“Academics debate why American workers are in many ways worse off than their counterparts elsewhere, but there is overriding agreement on one reason: Labor unions are weaker in the United States than in other industrial nations. Just one in 16 private-sector American workers is in a union, largely because corporations are so adept and aggressive at beating back unionization. In no other industrial nation do corporations fight so hard to keep out unions.

“The consequences are enormous, not only for wages and income inequality, but also for our politics and policymaking and for the many Americans who are mistreated at work.”

Vox: “The US labor shortage, explained” — “The US economy doesn’t have enough workers.

“For a record 16 straight months, the number of open jobs has been higher than the number of people looking for work. The US economy had 7.4 million job openings in June, but only 6 million people were looking for work, according to data released by the US Department of Labor.

“This is not normal. Ever since Labor began tracking job turnover two decades ago, there have always been more people looking for work than jobs available. That changed for the first time in January 2018. Just look at the chart below.”

Sydney Wertheim produced this hour for broadcast.

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